I owe Jack Black an apology. I’ve always seen him as a hit or miss comedic actor that never took risks. I enjoyed him in High Fidelity, Tropic Thunder, King Kong and School of Rock. Then, I’d see a Nacho Libre, Year One, or Tenacious D movie, and wonder what he was doing. With his strong, dramatic performance in “Bernie”, Jack Black undoubtedly cements his place among Hollywood’s most talented performers.
If this is your first time hearing of Bernie, it’s because the film has a limited distribution. I don’t recall seeing trailers or any promotion for it. Based on true events in Carthage, TX, the film’s concept begins with a 1998 Texas Monthly article, “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” by Skip Hollandsworth, who shares screenplay credit. A little research shows that Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) worked at a funeral home in East Texas and befriended the widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Bernie kills the widow, attempts to cover up the crime, and delivers an unforgettable story.
The entire town of Carthage loves Bernie Tiede, a man known for being helpful, reliable and extremely jovial. Almost every scene involves Jack Black consoling or singing praises. The singing contributes largely to Black’s genius. Jack Black has performed for years in his comedy band, Tenacious D, alongside rock names such as Dave Grohl, Meatloaf and Queens of the Stone Age.
In Bernie, we see the full range of his vocal talent, and possibly a future in musicals or Broadway. Black cruising in his car, belting the gospel song “Love Lifted Me,” is infectious. Bernie does for this song what “O, Brother Where Art Thou” did for bluegrass.
After years of seeing Jack Black make silly faces, his dedication to the role of Bernie Tiede bleeds sincerity. From the awkward way he walks to his soft-spoken, East Texas accent, every gesture is a lesson in character performance. I lost myself in the portrayal of Bernie, forgetting that it was really Jack Black.
Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey pull us deeper into Carthage’s twisted tale. Maclaine as the widowed Marjorie spends the first half of her screen time silent. Her body language shows us the mean woman we hear described by townsfolk, as even chewing food drives Bernie (and the audience) up the walls. Her words become as scathing as her facial expressions, as she pushes Bernie further into servitude and away from friendship.
McConaughey excels as Danny “Buck” Davidson, the District Attorney faced with the task of prosecuting a man too popular to convict. McConaughey makes every moment of his screen time count, shifting from a laid back jokester to a fierce court room opponent.
The supporting cast appears in interview segments, in a documentary style. I wasn’t surprised to learn they’re actual Carthage citizens. As a Texas native and film fan, the use of actual residents brings an honesty that Hollywood misses when depicting the south.
Bernie is a rare treat and deserves a much wider audience. The mix of comedy and documentary styles were a great way to tell this story. If you’re fortunate enough to have this film available in your area, give it a shot. To ignore such a unique story and performances would truly be a crime.